Saturday, June 14, 2008

Memoirs and the Adventure of War pt. 2

A bit ago I started musing on why Confederate veterans in their postwar memoirs always seemed to go seeking adventures in '61, as John Jackman of the 9th KY put it, like so many Romantic Don Quixotes. Part One explored some of the instances when the "fun and adventure" motivation could have motivated soldiers, but here I want to show why I think this is a postwar creation as part of the glossing over of the war's causes.

What’s the point of understanding who the postwar memoirist was in 1861? It is to say that the postwar memoirist came from the set of men who had the most on the line in 1861. He was the one who was completing his studies, apprenticeship, or clerkship and was looking to start a business for himself soon. He was the one looking to get married in the next few years and start a family. He was the one who wanted to take advantage of the cheap land and need for professional men in the western territories. He was the one who wanted slavery extended into those territories so that he could make a profitable living there. He was the one whom Lincoln’s election (with its promise to corral slavery in the states where it already existed) most threatened. The memoirist was from a set of men that were fire-eating secessionists, who held secession rallies in towns and on college campuses, who joined militia units in the wake of John Brown’s raid, and who enlisted to fight for the Confederacy in the hopes that they might be able to extend their property rights into the Southwestern territories. The memoirist and his comrades fought for slavery, no two ways around it. Slavery’s prosperous expansion was both an Enlistment Motivation for the memoirist as well as a Sustaining one. If the Confederacy failed, his world would be turned upside down. His father’s economic security would crumble, their own plans to expand West, be fruitful, and plantation-ize the territories would go up in smoke. The memoirist can write about the entire war from wire to wire because he fought the entire war, wire to wire. The memoirist was a diehard because his old life was over if the war was lost. Memoirists like Marcus Toney didn’t give up the fight in 1865 either...he became a Kukluxer.

So, in the late 19th century, the memoirist found that having fought for slavery (and implicitly personal economic and social stability in their future lives) was politically inexpedient. It did not harmonize with the tone of sectional reconciliation that was currently being pushed by the UCV, the Southern Historical Society, et al. Hence, one of his underlying Enlistment motivations and one of his Sustaining Motivations, the expansion and preservation of slavery, was swept under the rug. The substance of the war, the pretext for the adventure, and the motivation that sustained them long after their thirst for martial glory was slaked, was quenched.

What has this done to our understanding of the Confederate soldier? Just like the rest of the Lost Cause interpretation that has whitewashed the war’s causes in favor of highlighting the military events. We understand the young Confederate enlistee not as a forward-thinking, big man on the make but as youthful innocents, too besotted with starry-eyed dreams of heroism to know what they were getting into. We forget the two years of military training that many of them had had in the wake of the Brown raid, we forget the filibustering experience of their older brothers and their officers, we forget the decade of growing conflict brewing as these men came of age. They become hollow allegories, representing lost youth. It’s a tearjerker and a tragedy, we are to feel sympathy for the South’s “Lost Generation” who willingly sacrificed themselves. An understanding like this flattens the Confederate soldier. He is no longer a complex human being with plans for the future, fighting to make a place for himself in a competitive world, but instead a fatalistically Romantic child-hero, free from sin and reproach.

Did the memoirists need to remember their fallen comrades as such? It likely helped ease the burden of their own survivors’ guilt. But in a larger sense, removing the political and racial issues of 1861 from the table promoted national (white) reconciliation, goodwill and amiable respect between North and South. It was this respect and removal of Republican oversight that allowed those same memoirists and their comrades free reign to rewrite state constitutions and pass legislation in the state houses and deny justice in the courts. The memoirist and his youthful, adventurous literary character helped usher in the era of Jim Crow. It took the country another half-century to reverse the legal segregationist course that the aging Civil War generation set us on in the 1890s as these memoirs were at the height of their popularity.

Unfortunately, it has taken historiography even longer. In recent years, historians have begun to cut through the mythology and see the carefully constructed memoir’s hero for what he was: a postwar creation of Jubal Early, Marcus Toney, and Sam Watkins that served the contemporary political and social ends of the white South. Today, those who continue to promote the “fun and adventure” thesis live in a past as false as Gone With the Wind. In one respect, by consuming, digesting, and promoting that image of the antebellum South, they participate vicariously in and implicitly support the post-Reconstruction campaign to reestablish the antebellum Southern power structure and disenfranchise blacks. Can we look past the “fun and adventure” now?


tilley's cannon said...

Another well done post. Using their class to frame the memoirists' background you go a step further than David Blight who didn't contextualize many of his subjects as well as he might have.
Slightly related to this, It always seems to be this group who were wholeheartedly pro-war during the Spanish war scares of the 1870's and later the Spanish War. I sometimes wonder if these people thought on war with Spain as an extension of filibustering. For all intents and purposes, it nearly was. Certainly the racial aspect of the war and the possible financial opportunities had to be appealing. Of course, this is just a thought.

tilley's cannon said...

By the way, "post-war fun" is an astoundingly great tag.